Daniel Larison

That’s One View

Whenever I try to chart a course between the “Iraq would have been great if we’d just had smarter people in charge of the occupation” and the “Arabs can’t handle democracy” school of thought, I tend to come back to things like this — the great difficult [sic] Belgians have in creating a viable, legitimate binational democratic state. Or think of the Canadians. Or the endless problems in Spain with the Basques. It’s genuinely difficult to work these kinds of things out. And then there’s the former Czechoslovakia where it couldn’t be worked out, or else Northern Ireland where it also couldn’t be worked out but where there proved to be no adequate line of partition. ~Matt Yglesias

Looked at another way, the problem in all of these cases isn’t the creation of a viable, legitimate binational state.  Even Czechoslovakia functioned as some kind of viable, legitimate binational (or actually trinational before they kicked the Germans out) state for approximately eighty years until the local power bosses on either side of the Slovakian border decided that it would be easier and/or more advantageous to them politically to hive off the Slovaks into their own state.  This suited the Slovak nationalists and the Czech leadership, which was just as glad to have that much less competition for running Bohemia and Moravia.  As many Czechs and Slovaks will tell you even now, the “velvet divorce” was something that many people on both sides of the border did not want.  Czechoslovakia may have been some arbitrarily made-up country, but it was their arbitrarily made-up country and it was the only one they had known.  Suddenly friends and relatives became citizens of a foreign country.  As someone who visited the newly independent Slovakia in 1993, I can testify to the sort of absurd “nation-building” pettiness that accompanied this process, as our perfectly good Czech koruna bills had to be exchanged for virtually indistinguishable Slovak koruna bills, as if the little stamp on the Slovak money made any real difference.  

The trouble in these cases arises when the political class tries to maintain a binational state in such a way that appears to one party of the union to unduly privilege the interests of the other party.  To many Flemings, the Belgian state appears to be a mechanism to rob them to support Wallonia (which, for the most part, seems to be true).  You then combine this with a growing sense of alienation and nationalism of the party that feels as if it is being ignored or abused, and you suddenly have a very difficult situation.  In Belgium, matters have reached such a boiling point because, among other things, Flemish nationalists feel that they subsidise the rest of the country and they think they do not have sufficient representation at the federal level.  It has not helped that the consensus parties have banned one Flemish nationalist party and have worked assiduously to contain Flemish nationalist political power.  This has only helped to encourage the view that Belgian “democracy” means having the ‘right’ elections results and enacting the ‘right’ policies rather than having any kind of self-determination or popular government.

What do almost all of these places have in common?  They are almost all the legacies of conquest/colonialism or the products of international congresses that drew fairly arbitrary lines on maps to suit Great Power vendettas and interests.  Of these, the most “manageable” have been those arrangements where there has been significant decentralisation to meet demands for regional or provincial autonomy.  The more accurate comparison for Iraq, however, is not with Spain or Canada or even Belgium, which have a relative wealth of history as united countries compared to Iraq, but rather with Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, which were created in the same period as part of the same foolish Allied empire-carving process and which dissolved into their constituent parts (though Yugoslavia’s dissolution had a good deal of help from outside meddlers).  Iraq seems bound for the same fate, if only because the local power bosses in different parts of Iraq are going to become interested in partition for the same reasons their counterparts in Czechoslovakia were: it allows them to be bigger fish in the necessarily smaller ponds.

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A Season Of Hope?

A few months ago, it was the received wisdom that Iraq was in the midst of a rapidly escalating civil war. That claim is no longer plausible. ~Michael Gerson

Well, actually, that was the “received wisdom” of many people last summer as well.  Rather than “rapidly escalating” now, the civil war has reached a plateau for the moment and has settled into a steady stream of sectarian bloodletting.  One wonders if Gerson reads the newspaper where his column appears.  He claims that sectarian killings in Baghdad have declined by 50%.  However, the Post reported on the draft GAO report yesterday:

The draft provides a stark assessment of the tactical effects of the current U.S.-led counteroffensive to secure Baghdad. “While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced [bold mine-DL],” it states. While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged [bold mine-DL]. It also finds that “the capabilities of Iraqi security forces have not improved.” 

What does all this tell us?  That it may be the case that the new tactical plan had some decent success in certain areas, and that when the “surge” ends things will revert back to the way they had been before.  Since the “surge” is definitely going to end at some point, its main accomplishment will have been to halt the worsening of the situation and buy time for the political track.  As we all know, however, the political track is all but hopeless.  Why, then, do optimistic war supporters continue to give the public false hope?  We should give Gerson this much–at least he didn’t say we had turned a corner!

Update: Prof. Cole makes all the necessary points on this subject.

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There’s A First Time For Everything

Fukuyama actually makes some sense about Russia:

What the West needs to do is watch Russia’s actual behavior, and not project onto it the West’s own hopes and fears as occurred over the past fifteen years. Many Westerners are angry with Putin and the Russia he is creating in part because they are jilted lovers: they hoped in the 1990s that the country would transition in short order to a full-fledged liberal democracy, and when it didn’t, they felt cheated. But the fact that a fully democratic Russia did not emerge does not means that a fully authoritarian Russia is now inevitable. Russia’s future will not be inevitably shaped by its past, but by the decisions that contemporary Russians will make, and the opportunities that the international environment provides them to make the right choices.

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Senate Races

John Warner’s recent relatively outspoken stances on Iraq are evidently not the result of worries about his chances for re-election next year, as he has announced that he will not be running.  As John Judis has noted, Virginia is a vulnerable seat for the GOP with a Warner retirement, and it is also a state that has lately been trending Democratic in federal elections.  The Dems could quite plausibly wind up with 56 or 57 votes in the Senate come 2009 (including Sanders and Lieberman), sending the Republicans back to pre-1994 numbers in the Senate.  In a full rout for the GOP (which would involve highly unlikely losses in Texas and Alaska), they could be reduced to 40 Senators, which would be the fewest members since the 95th Congress.  My early guess (and that’s all) is that Collins and Smith hang on, but Coleman loses along with the GOP nominees in Colorado and Virginia.

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A Very Necessary Exorcism

And the fact is that the neocon crowd that took far too easily the helm of the foreign policy establishment away from the realist and liberal internationalist players in this game are almost entirely responsible for the dramatic erosion of America’s national security portfolio. ~Steve Clemons

Well, with the exception of rare figures such as Mr. Clemons himself, “the realist and liberal internationalist players in this game” allowed the neocons to take the helm or did very, very little to stop them from taking the helm, because at the time that the neocons were taking the helm in 2002 and 2003 “the realist and liberal internationalist players in this game” were largely on board with the general goals of the neocons with respect to the “war on terror” and Iraq policy specifically.  Certainly, concerning Iraq there were differences over methods, timing and process, which is why “the realist and liberal internationalist players in this game” lost control, because they had no fundamental and essential objections to what the neocons were proposing to do.  On Iran policy, where are “the realist and liberal internationalist players in this game” right now?  What are they doing to thwart an escalation of conflict with the Iranians?  Which presidential candidates (besides, naturally, Ron Paul) are challening the neocon line on Iran?  As of right now, none of the major candidates is firmly opposed to military action against Iran.  How did the neocons begin dictating the terms of the debate?  It was easy–almost everyone (with honourable exceptions such as Mr. Clemons) in the foreign policy establishment already accepted most of what the neocons were saying, or remained silent if they did not accept it.  

As the neocons have overreached again and again, there has been some resistance to executive usurpation, policies of detention and torture and the like.  However, I fear that as long as most of “the realist and liberal internationalist players in this game” accept so many of the same assumptions about America’s role in the world and approve of so many of the same means to reinforce American hegemony, there will never be a time when the neocons–or people just like them–will have been “purged from the American soul.”  When this particular group passes from the scene, we will find ourselves set upon by another and yet another group of hegemonists, because “the realist and liberal internationalist players in this game” are evidently unwilling to change very much about the way the United States government conducts foreign policy.

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CSA Zindabad?

Strange but true: the Stars and Bars adorn this Pakistani fruit-seller’s stand (via Cliopatria).  What’s Urdu for Deo Vindice?

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Ron Paul For President!

The Wall Street Journal (yes, you read that correctly) has a story on Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, and it is surprisingly favourable.


The Stupidity Of The Anti-Maliki Pols

As someone who was a fairly early critic of Maliki, I have to say that I have never had any confidence in his government as an effective U.S. ally, much less as a reliable quisling government.  Even so, I have to acknowledge that Maliki was never going to achieve the things that Washington expected him to achieve, because the interests of his government and ours never really coincided.  What was the incentive for an old Shi’ite fundamentalist Da’wa hand to engage in “political reconciliation”?  Exploiting sectarian differences and maximising majoritarian power naturally serve the particular interests of Maliki’s own party and his coalition far better.  This is not, however, something that derives from Maliki’s own flaws.  If not Maliki, Iraq would have someone from the Terrorist Group Formerly Known As SCIRI or another Da’wa politician, which means that any future ministry would be just as sectarian and “beholden to religious and sectarian leaders,” if not more.  As Prof. Cole confirms, a SIIC (formerly SCIRI) prime minister would be even more closely tied to Tehran and even more under Tehran’s control, since his party is still quite clearly an Iranian proxy as it has been for decades. 

Prof. Cole is correct that the sudden disdain for Maliki inside the Capitol is a function of both our warped political debate on the war and our pols’ ignorance about Iraq.  Democratic critics of Maliki would almost have to hope that no one pays any attention to them, since “success” in forcing Maliki out would not bring the war to an end any sooner.  The strange thing is that Democratic critics of Maliki don’t seem to grasp that installing yet another ineffectual or unduly sectarian prime minister in Iraq would simply prolong our involvement in the war that much more.  It would give Mr. Bush the advantage of being able to call for patience as the “new Iraqi government” tries to work out the various thorny problems of legislation.  If we recognised instead that Maliki was probably the best that could be hoped for, and everyone is coming to the conclusion that his government is a hopeless case, we could begin making the necessary preparations for getting out of Iraq that much sooner.  This absurd dance of arguing over which Shi’ite should be allowed to fail to govern Iraq is a waste of precious time, and each day of dithering by alleged Congressional opponents of the war is another day when Americans are dying in Iraq for no good reason.

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Grim Triumphalism

The antiwar forces, the surge opponents, the “I was against it from the beginning” people are, some of them, indulging in grim, and mindless, triumphalism. They show a smirk of pleasure at bad news that has been brought by the other team. Some have a terrible quaking fear that something good might happen in Iraq, that the situation might be redeemed. Their great interest is that Bushism be laid low and the president humiliated. They make lists of those who supported Iraq and who must be read out of polite society. Might these attitudes be called thuggish also? ~Peggy Noonan

Give Ms. Noonan credit at least for acknowledging a certain thuggishness on the other side as well.  Most of this column is reasonably fair, and it actually gives opponents of the war a good deal more credit than one might have dared to hope for in The Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed pages, which is to say that it treats opponents as rational people who might even have the odd legitimate point to make here and there.  I would really like to take Ms. Noonan’s column in the spirit in which it was written–a call to work for the common good, set aside the rancour and bitterness of the last several years and rise to the occasion of a national challenge.  With as little “grim triumphalism” as possible, let me suggest a few reasons why this appeal will be met in antiwar circles with indifference, if not derision.

First there is this business of accusing us of engaging in grim and “mindless” triumphalism.  It is true that many of us who have opposed the war from the beginning, including myself, have occasionally made a point of reminding others that those on our side were making the more prescient, accurate and serious arguments prior to the invasion.  It seems to me that war opponents have done this not, for the most part, to gloat and feel satisfied with themselves (though it is unavoidable in any major controversy such as this that there would be some of this–I genuinely believe that this sort of preening has been less obnoxious and less common than that done on a regular basis by the other side).  We have done this to establish our own credibility and, by extension, to question the credibility of those who urge us to continue the war. 

What triumphalism does Ms. Noonan mean?  Who engages in it, and how representative are they?  What, after all, do war opponents really have to gloat about?  Where is the triumph that war opponents are grimly and mindlessly celebrating?  What have we accomplished?  That we saw the disaster coming and failed to stop it?  That we knew the stated goals of the administration were nonsense, but nonetheless were entirely unsuccessful in persuading the country when it mattered?  Prescience, principle and foresight are all very well, but in the most fundamental way the antiwar movement in this country has gone from failure to failure, constantly waiting on events to do for them what war opponents have been unable to do for themselves: force an end to the war. 

Even now antiwar elements in Congress cower in fear at the approach of Petraeus, fully expecting a political setback when the general reports (as virtually all of us expect) that things are getting better and we need to give it more time.  Antiwar activists attempt to interpret the political maneuvers of mildly critical Republican Senators with the superstitious awe of someone reading his fortune in coffee grounds.  Nothing much has changed from four years ago.  American war opponents waited in anticipation at the possibility that British protesters or Dominique de Villepin or the Turkish government or (God help us) Hans Blix would somehow stop the war and save the day.  No wonder the jingoes won the day.  (Then again, jingoes usually do win the first round to get us into the war, and then leave it up to the rest of us to fix their mess.)

There is this claim that we “smirk” with pleasure at bad news.  If there is any smirking going on, it is distinctly of the gallows humour variety, since war opponents have always been appalled at the moral blight and humanitarian disaster that this war has been.  There may be exceptions out there somewhere, but in general war opponents are horrified at the nightmare that our government has let loose in Iraq, but most of us are not so foolish as to think that the same government that destroyed Iraq can effectively put it back together again.  Speaking for myself, I grimace at reports of new bombings and continued chaos in that miserable country.  It grieves me that ancient Christian communities are being uprooted, that centuries-old mosques, treasures of the medieval Islamic world, have been destroyed by fanatics and that millions of people are displaced or have fled their homes.  The few gratifying moments come in revealing the more pompous jingo pundits to be ignorant and foolish, which is not a terribly difficult task, but mostly this just reminds me of the frustration that such people are still taken seriously as equal, if not dominant, participants in the foreign policy debate in this country.  It would be excellent if there were actually good, widespread news in Iraq of permanent progress in security and services, rather than the exaggerated Potemkinesque rattling off of statistics about reopened schools and rebuilt soccer pitches.  If the disaster in Iraq could realistically be redeemed, you would find a great many war opponents very happy to be wrong.  Of course, it can’t be, which is what the entire debate has been about, but I fail to see how it helps to restore lines of communication by repeating the most dreadful calumnies against war opponents. 

Ms. Noonan says, “They make lists of those who supported Iraq and who must be read out of polite society.”  Well, yes, war opponents do argue that people so fantastically, massively wrong about the major foreign policy debacle of our time should not be taken seriously in future.  Their record of repeated, consistent misjudgements and errors in understanding Iraq and indeed foreign policy generally should indict them without our having to say anything.  That just seems like good sense.  It is telling that reasoned criticism of massive policy blunders can be equated with shrill chauvinistic demonisation as if they were equivalent.  More to the point, in spite of the Iraq debacle, every single war supporting pundit, policy intellectual and academic remains very much a part of “polite society” and seems to be in no danger of being cast out from it.  Though there were quite deliberate efforts to read war opponents out of “polite society” (or perhaps it was more of a permanent barrier to their ever being allowed into said society in the first place), war opponents have never been in any position to drive the jingoes into the proverbial wilderness, as much as we might privately wish to drive some of the more obnoxious ones out of public discourse.  Rather than being expelled into outer darkness, they remain at the center of the debate.  Shockingly, they are still taken to be “responsible” and “serious” participants in the conversation, when those are precisely the things they are not.  The political environment is such that, in spite of continual failures of judgement and analysis, they flourish while most war opponents toil in relative obscurity.  This environment is why most of our presidential candidates, including some allegedly antiwar politicians, try to outbid one another into their belligerence towards Iran and other foreign countries and why our foreign policy establishment remains as fundamentally misguided in its assumptions about American power as it has ever been.  There has been no antiwar triumph, and so we have had very little about which to feel trumphalistic.

Ms. Noonan calls for “a vow to look to–to care about–America’s interests in the long term, a commitment to look at the facts as they are and try to come to conclusions.”  Naturally, both sides of the debate believe they are doing just that.  However, part of looking at the facts “as they are” involves making this judgement: which side has been consistently unable to face facts, especially those that contradict its prior assumptions, and which one has been right more often than not in its analysis of the available facts?  I think most war supporters do have America’s long-term interests at heart, but the trouble is that they completely misunderstand the relationship between this war and those interests.  They believe our interests are best served by remaining in Iraq until we “win,” whereas this sounds like crazy talk to us.  In the end, Ms. Noonan’s call for comity and compromise results in defaulting to support for continuing the war and resisting calls for withdrawal.  War opponents are supposed to set aside not just their grievances and resentments of the past several years–we are supposed to accept the fundamental untruth at the heart of this war that Iraq is vital to our national security and that we cannot, must not, leave Iraq no matter what.  In short, Ms. Noonan is calling on all of us to come together to support the conclusions that war supporters have arrived at months and years ago.  It will come as no shock to anyone that war opponents will resist this kind of moral blackmail tooth and nail.

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Rumours continue to swirl about an attack on Iran before the year is out.  Prof. Cole points to this Barnett Rubin item, this author was told by U.S. intelligence sources that his forthcoming book on Iran might be made obsolete by an attack before 2008, and there has been talk that Rove timed his departure to make sure that he was out before it happened.  Plans to classify the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation certainly fit well with preparation for some sort of military action.  An attack on Iran is, of course, a supremely bad idea, which is probably another reason to think that the administration will order it.

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